Sunday, February 19, 2012

Vincent and Theo

There's a distinction I've been meaning to draw on this blog for a long time, and now seems as good a time as any to draw it.

Let's say that you are pretty serious about being an artist: not just going off somewhere alone and making some work, but actually having the work be a career. Well, then, you're going to be facing a series of demands that are not only conflicting, but very possibly irreconcilable.

On the one hand, you have absolutely got to follow your inspiration and produce work that is as true as you can muster.

On the other hand, you've got to go out in the world and convince other people that your work is worthwhile. This particular going-out is especially nasty in the art world. There are three reasons for this:

1. Art doesn't really matter. Sure, you can claim that art nourishes the spiritual life of Man. That is a noble claim, and I encourage you to make it to somebody who remembers the value of their index fund before 2008.

2. Quality in art is presently unquantifiable, and is likely to remain so for the indefinite future. It is simply impossible to authoritatively claim that one piece is better than another without coming off as a jackass. This doesn't mean that you and I won't try.

3. Supply vastly outstrips demand. Between MFA factories and off-the-street savants, radically more art - even good art - is produced every year than the scarce dollars assigned to the art market can absorb. Don't be confused by the enormous price tags of famous sales. Money in art is unequally distributed, but even if it weren't, there is nowhere near enough of it to support the number of people who want to be artists.

These three problems divorce the art world from most of the dynamics which we assume govern any industry - things like value and common sense. When an industry is untethered from optimizing its product, a more evolutionarily primitive set of behaviors obtains. Art, like the other useless industries - fashion, film, and high school - is largely governed, at a political level, by the most simple-minded of primate dynamics; all the nonsense about eye contact, silver backs, exposing the teeth, and so forth. Experimentation (seriously twisted experimentation) has shown that rhesus macaques will pay good money (cherry juice) to look at photographs of the perineums and faces of, respectively, the most high-status females and high-status males and females of their communities.

I can haz porn?

Useless industries function on the same basic principles: dominance by sex, by force, and by social rank.

So, once you decide to be a serious artist, you face a set of conflicting demands which can make you lose, first, your soul, and then, your mind. You have to be both Saint Francis and Caligula.

How to deal?

For my part, I encourage a healthy split personality. I have cultivated one myself. One of me exists inside the studio, and never comes out. The other of me exists outside the studio, and never goes in. They are encouraged to IM one another to make sure they're generally on the same page, but often they disagree and go their separate ways.

For the sake of convenience, I call the inside-the-studio part of my personality Vincent. Vincent makes the art.

The outside-the-studio part of my personality is Theo. Theo sells the art.

the notorious Van Goghs

You may have noticed that some of my blog posts are about art, and some are about art in the world. The first kind of post I think of as a Vincent post; the second a Theo post. I get anxious when I write too many Theo posts in a row because, basically, this is a secondary set of considerations.

Now, let me Theo at you for a minute.

In my previous post, I invited you to an opening at Dacia Gallery on Thursday evening, for a group show, "Reflections," in which three of my Blue Leah paintings were shown. Some friends came by, and I was glad to see them. The caliber of work was high. The presentation was professional. The dealers are nice guys and, even better, not clueless. The opening went really nicely, and I had a good time. Here are a few pictures.

the gallery from outside, at the beginning of the show

Theo, with Vincent's work

a gratifying number of people



  1. My compliments on your opening. Looks great and I wish you good things!

    I will quibble with your (extremely well written) thesis, now. I think what you have said makes sense, and holds together well enough logically. But you may want to know some facts, and I see them as critical to your three points.

    1. Witty. The economy sucks worse than any time in my life, so that makes your point. OTOH, I will import some sunshine for you. The record sale of a Cezanne to a Qutari prince shows me that the upper-end bubble is not burst. Yet. In fact it expresses the opposite.

    For us ground dwellers, It shows one of my undeniable truths of art markets to be true. There is a market for everything in art, somewhere. Pig in a bucket? Yes. Elvis on velvet? Check.

    I have experienced some renewed markets myself, and yet I am of the opinion that the economy is worse off each year including now. I just had to find the right market weakness and go there.

    And, if your art (sugary stuff follows) is on track, then it sends its message over the horizons of time. Market immaterial thing, that.

    2. The era of Post Modernism is over. This according to Prospect Magazine, July, 2011. What's next? trends are towards quality, no matter where you look. One guy said that you cannot have good, if you do not have a best. Art is good again.

    3. I agree that the art world is divorced from most other markets systems. But, some things are universal. There is no such thing as "money assigned," I must tell you. That is a closed system theory, and I don't want to go into meta economics, but when one creates a thing of value, then value is put into the system. Widgets and art - same thing. Capitol has been destroyed in the past 4 years, that is true. But, the dynamics of value remain the same. Don't fall for the zero sum arguments, my friend.

    Okay. That was fun.

    I feel the same when my Theo out talks my Vincent. It seems like Theo must rule 90 % of the time, and that is unnerving. They will both be together in the grave, though. Better if they get along on this side of the curtain.

  2. I also believe that there exists two worlds which enjoy some percentage of overlap: Art Making, and Art Appreciation.

    Art Making precedes Art Appreciation. Art Appreciation includes all the post-production issues of labeling groups or periods, documentation, critique, theory and valuation by mostly non-makers, that sometimes affects the direction of the making itself.

    At the end of the day, in the world of Art Appreciation, Art is a luxury item. Even the least priced art.

    All value, as in all other commerce, is relative.

  3. My humble two cents. Casey stated in his comments that "the art world is divorced from most other market systems". Assuming I understand his point correctly (I hope I do!) that seems to me the most distinguishing issue here.

    There is HUGE money being made in all areas of the creative arts. That's not unusual. But still most of them can be obtained, in some form, by the average consumer. As an ordinary person who is by no means wealthy, I can purchase a music mp3 that is a copy of the original music. I can purchase a Calvin Klein dress on sale. I can attend an Alvin Ailey dance performance at City Center or an Off-Broadway production of Samuel Beckett at a cost to me but not to any degree that is out of my financial range. My point is that the possibility of acquiring quality, original artwork carries an elitist, glitterati reputation and big price tag (due to gallery commissions, etc) that causes many people to feel excluded. It's like your Vincent and Theo. I know a lot of people in the NY art world and feel completely comfortable around them 98% of the time. Then I get invited to an opening and it's like I'm on a different planet! I think, "Who the hell are all these assholes?". It's basically a foreign, almost insufferable experience.

    Artists can be their Vincent selves around, say, artist's models :-) Some of us have original artwork hanging on our walls that was purchased/acquired FROM Vincent THROUGH Vincent. Theo was nowhere to be found.

    The two worlds of art have a significantly thicker, taller wall between then than those of other creative fields, it seems to me. A wall that separates the business/commercial side from the creative side makes sense. I understand that. But a wall that in many ways shuts out the prospective consumer makes the work more distant and less accessible, creating an enormous divide. I can see a live performance of Beethoven's 7th. But I can't purchase a David Hockney. I have no solutions mind you, just identifying the art world's unique issue here. Something has just gone seriously wrong. It's like McGuilmet said: "Art is a luxury item".

    You have done well cultivating the "split personality". But I feel bad because why should you have to? God knows Beethoven never did. I don't think he even gave a shit! But that's Beethoven :-)

    Congratulations on your opening, Daniel!


  4. You know, Claudia, I know a guy who has a Hockney. He's comfortably off, from working in a profession all his life but is by no means mega-rich.

    He bought it by eating marmite on toast for a month about 30 years ago, back in the days when he was a trainee.

    Not sure what that adds, except to say he still adores that picture.

  5. Casey -

    Well, thank you for this long, thoughtful comment! And for your kind words on the paintings and the show.

    To try to respond to your points in sequence:

    1. I'm glad sales are going well with you. Your citation of the Qatari prince suggests a trend I've been reading about, that in the capital search for investments of stable value, art has been coming to more people's attention. Of course, this depends on stable valuations and will tend to reinforce ossification of preferences in favor of old masters, abex, and pop, so that purchases don't suddenly depreciate.

    To the final part of your point - yes, of course; although this is more difficult if your work is in a thrift store, an attic, or a garbage dump.

    2. I've been hearing this since 9/11. I have yet to see evidence that it is true for anyone but a very rowdy gang of figurative painters who are constantly proclaiming their own importance. On the other hand, I was not around for the real desert years of the 60's and 70's, and can acknowledge that, indeed, the pendulum has swung a fair distance back since the zenith of Pollockism.

    3. I think you are conflating non-zero-sum economics with totally elastic markets. I am certainly a non-zero-sum economist of the school your remarks imply, but I also think that, short of cultural changes or the intrusion of acclaimed pop geniuses (the J.K. Rowling effect), the art market is fairly non-elastic; perhaps not in total dollar valuation, but in the proportion of dollars people with the means to buy are willing to allocate to it. As regards capital destruction over the past 4 years, I think it is nothing in comparison with the upcoming quadruple-threat of the Iran war, the collapse of the Eurozone, the popping of the China bubble, and the implosion of the fed, states and municipalities under the twin burdens of entitlements and public sector pension obligations. In short, everyone is screwed, and artists will be competing for the same minor proportion of a steeply declining total capital pool.


  6. McG - I like your schema of art making being prior to art appreciation. Am I correct in vaguely remembering that Nietzsche says somewhere that art is secondary to mere screaming? I've always had a sentimental weakness for that - I know what he means. To scrape art down as close to the scream as possible is, for me at least, an important goal. I don't mean a scream per se, but rather an instant of pure insight or pure action; shoddily captured, as closely as possible thereafter, in plastic form.

    This should not be taken to counter my remark to Casey that everyone is screwed. Fortunately, canvas and paint are cheap.

    Claudia - Hello! I am always glad to hear from you! Your distinction of the visual arts in terms of the price of purchase is very interesting, and I hadn't thought about that specifically, but of course it must play into the model I am proposing. The openings with the assholes you cite must be the ones where the actual collectors show. You get to being able to read a crowd - these are artists; these are friends of artists; and *these* are collectors.

    I don't think you've ever seen me in full Theo - yes, of course, I am always Vincent around you, and the drawings I'll be delivering to you will be handed off by Vincent...

    Your application of the model to the problem of the collector on the one hand, and the layman art enjoyer on the other, is another thing I didn't think of, but again, strikes me as a useful insight. It reminds me of any art museum which has both a renaissance/baroque/impressionist section and a since-WWII section. The first section will be crowded, the second empty. The second exists because of a symbiosis between collectors who need the placement to maintain the value of their investments, and curators who are, like the rest of us, not immune from a desire to be hip. The aesthetic ramifications of the purchase/appreciation divide you mention do indeed tend to separate art into distinct fields, one of them informed by theory and auction prices, the other by what people actually want to see.

    Thank you for your praise of my split personality! I do think as a responsible careerist I need one - I don't know how Beethoven managed; how did everybody find out he was Beethoven? I know Bach was perpetually broke. I'd prefer not to be, but before that, I'd prefer to know that my work will end up someplace not the junk shop, attic, or dump...

    I'll look forward to seeing you soon!

    Jane -

    Could you encourage your friend to buy a Maidman before they exit his price range? Either way, I am very envious of him and his Hockney! Nor would I find living on marmite such a burden - I really love marmite. I'm glad he's still enjoying his Hockney. When are you getting to New York? I can't wait to meet you.

  7. One last thing - Casey, I haven't made nearly the study of economics that I ought to have, and I apologize for any conceptual confusions I've made in my reply to you.

    1. It's a good answer, Daniel. My sinusitis (going on 2.5 weeks) has me muddled. The comment I wrote before was in a semi-lucid state, of which I cannot return to at the moment. I want to think about the elasticity issue you bring up.

      Hi, Claudia! I think it was DM who said, "the art world is divorced from most other market systems." I was using that as a bridge. It is indeed different, but it is way beyond me to describe it. Your story about the openings is funny!


  8. You're right about the three problems, but it's also simply true that different people have different interests and tastes. Contemporary/postmodern art has a real fan base. Every time I've been to the New Museum of Contemporary Art it's been crowded.

    If Jerry Saltz would rather have a fake Hirst by Maidman than an original Maidman, he's never going to want a Maidman. Personally, I would much prefer to own a Maidman than a Hirst (though if offered one or the other not to keep but to auction off I'd have to go with the Hirst). But Jerry Saltz is a contemporary art guy and he's interested in certain things, and your artwork has nothing to do with any of those things.

    There is a market for contemporary figurative realism or classicism. This market has its own galleries and its own collectors, its own art stars and its own economics. The overlap of interest with the mainstream contemporary/postmodern market is very small, but that doesn't matter. If you want to market your work, you have to market it to those who will love it.

    What I'm saying is, you're not mainstream, you're niche. Embrace it.

  9. What Fred says.

    Not too much longer - arrive on the 28th April, and am now starting to plan how I'm going to spend my time - Brooklyn is pencilled in for the 29th.

    Hopefully I get to meet Vincent, although having read the letters Theo comes across as the much nicer guy.

    1. Jane, you're coming to NY? How exciting!! That's awesome!!


    2. Yup - in May for the Art Students League Residency. I haven't said anything over on your blog as didn't want to seem too stalkerish . . . but if even a few of the other models are a quarter as awesome as you then I'm in for a treat!

  10. Hey - sorry about the slow replying; my dad's in town - better service next week!

    1. That's no excuse dammit!!! <-- just kidding :-)

      :no point to this comment at all: